Until the recent release of Foundry’s “Darkest
Africa” range, the period of exploration in
nineteenth century Africa has never been a
popular subject among wargamers. In fact it
is seldom considered as a sphere of military
operations at all - in marked contrast to a selected
few of the later campaigns of colonial conquest,
especially in South Africa and the Sudan. But not
to worry. Historically-minded gamers who have
been tempted by Foundry’s figures will not have
to restrict themselves to small-scale skirmishes.
This must have been one of the most
unremittingly violent eras of human history, with slave-raids, armed
exploring expeditions, native resistance, tribal migrations and
vendettas merging into one vast multi-sided conflict covering half a
century and half a continent. A lot of the fighting, of course, was
between illiterate peoples who left no records, but in the books of the
European explorers of the time there are more than enough accounts
to keep the most bloodthirsty wargamer happy.
The main difficulty is what scenarios to pick from the countless
possibilities on offer. The scale and complexity of the fighting, in fact,
makes it very difficult to provide even an outline of events in a few
pages. So what I would like to do in this three-part series is to present
just a handful of actions which would be suitable for reconstruction as
wargames of one sort or another. Or if re-fights are not to your taste,
they will serve as examples of the forces, tactics and general
conditions which might have been encountered by your fictional
tribes or expeditions.
The first of these “battles” is a small-scale fight which would be ideal
for recreation as a one-to-one skirmish game. It involved a surprise
night attack by a band of Somalis on a party of British explorers, and is
probably fairly typical of countless minor raids. The only reason we
know about this one is because, in two respects at least, it was not
typical: most of the intended victims survived, and two of them wrote
books about their experiences. Our two witnesses, in fact, are among
the most famous names in African exploration: Richard Burton, who
wrote up his account in “First Footsteps in East Africa”, and John
Hanning Speke, who gives us his version in his “What Led to the
Discovery of the Source of the Nile”. From these two sources it is
possible to reconstruct this desperate little fight in some detail.
In the spring of 1855 the two explorers were in what is now Somalia,
where Burton had just completed a perilous journey to the hitherto
unknown city of Harar. Together with a couple of other British
officers, Lieutenants Herne and Stroyan (all four were on leave or
secondment from the Indian Army), they were encamped not far from
the little port of Berbera. There were rumours that some of the local
tribes were hostile, but Burton, who was in charge, seems to have
disregarded the warning signs. In fact the Somalis were convinced
that the explorers were spying out the land in preparation for a British
invasion, and a coalition of tribes was coming together with the
intention of driving them out.
Early on the morning of 19th April, the unsuspecting expedition was
camped on top of a rocky ridge, three quarters of a mile outside
Berbera. This site had originally been chosen so that in the event of
trouble it could be protected by the guns of the “Mahi”, an East India
Company schooner which had been anchored off the town.
Unfortunately, by the time of the attack the “Mahi” had been called
away on blockade duty - a fact of which the local tribes were well
aware. The camp consisted of three tents pitched in a line along the
ridge, with about a dozen paces between each. An inlet of the sea was
not much more than a musket shot away to the front. The middle tent
was a big “Rowtie”, or Indian Sepoy’s tent, “pent-house shaped,
supported by a single transverse and two upright poles and open at one
of the long ends”. The camels were tethered below the ridge in front of
the tents - ie. between them and the sea - and the horses and mules a
similar distance behind. The baggage was piled in the open, between
the middle and left-hand tents; it included a number of big wooden
boxes, which the attackers were to find useful as cover.
The explorers’ party consisted of 42 men: the four white men and their
personal servants; a dozen African and Arab askaris, each armed with
a flintlock musket and a sabre ( “all raw recruits, and unaccustomed to
warfare” says Speke); and about 20 friendly Somalis. More useful
than all the rest put together was the Somali “Ras” or caravan leader,
Mahmud, who because of his skill as an intermediary with the
tribesmen was always referred to as El Balyuz, or The Ambassador.
The odds were heavily in favour of the hostile Somalis, who came
from three different tribes, and numbered altogether about 350.
According to the description in Speke's book, all Somali warriors
carried a spear, a shield, a “long two-edged knife” and a war-club,
which he calls a “shillelagh”. Burton described them as displaying
“wily valour” rather than reckless courage, and considered that their
mode of warfare was not particularly deadly in a stand-up fight,
although they could carry out spectacular massacres if they caught
their enemies unprepared. Guns, he tells us, were virtually unknown in
the 1850s, and although the warriors professed to despise them as
cowardly weapons, in reality they were terrified of them. “At present,”
he writes, “a man armed with a revolver would be a terror to the

The morale disadvantage under which the Somalis laboured when
facing firearms is something which will have to be borne in mind
when reconstructing the coming fight. As far as hand-to-hand combat
is concerned, Burton - who was an expert fencer with the sabre - had
already had the opportunity to match his skill at arms against that of
the Somalis while en route to Harar. He concluded that a good fencer
could easily defeat a warrior equipped with spear and shield, and
proved his point in a duel with a noted Bedouin spearman. Burton had
also demonstrated his ability to dodge a thrown spear, which he
regarded as “a puerile weapon during the day when a steady man can
easily avoid it”. (This was not so easy at night, of course, when you
could not see it coming.) Wargamers usually assume that a “native”
with a spear is more than a match for a European in close combat, but
the events at Berbera were to prove that Burton’s dismissive verdict in
this case was correct.
The Battle.
At sunset on 18th April, three mounted Somalis approached the
explorers' camp and were apprehended on suspicion of being scouts
for a raiding party. This is undoubtedly what they were, but they
somehow managed to talk their way out of trouble, and assured the
defenders that the local tribes were still friendly. So the party went to
bed as usual, taking no extra precautions. By the early hours of the
19th it appears that everyone was asleep, except for the usual two
sentries and the Balyuz, whose job it was to supervise them. Stroyan
was in the right-hand tent, with Burton and Herne in the big tent in the
middle, and Speke in the one on the left. The native servants and allies
were, as usual, sleeping in the open.
Sometime between two and three o’clock in the morning, Burton and
Herne were woken by the Balyuz with the news that the enemy was
upon them. While Burton reached for his sabre, his companion, armed
with a Colt revolver, dashed outside to see what was happening.
Herne quickly gathered together a few of the askaris, but these ran off
into the darkness as soon as the enemy came in sight. Hordes of
Somalis on foot were already charging right into the camp from the
left and rear. Herne got off a couple of hasty shots, then ran back
towards Burton's tent. On the way he tripped over a guy-rope and a
Somali rushed forward to club him. He shot the man down, then
scrambled back to where Burton was waiting.
The latter had by now woken the other two officers, and Speke soon
joined Burton and Herne at the big tent. Stroyan, however, was never
seen alive again. His body was later found with a fatal spear-thrust
through the heart. (A Somali named Ao Ali claimed the credit for
killing Stroyan, and adorned himself with the ostrich feather to which
the deed entitled him.) The askaris and “friendly” Somalis had all
disappeared by this time - “the coast being open to them”, says Burton
with understandable cynicism, “they naturally ran away, firing a few
useless shots and receiving a modicum of flesh wounds”. The three
surviving white men stood at bay in the tent, blazing away into the
darkness while their assailants showered them with javelins, stones
and daggers. Burton was still armed only with his sabre, but his two
companions each had a revolver, with which they managed to keep the
enemy at a distance. Most of the Somalis moved off to loot the
baggage and drive away the expedition's camels, but about twenty of
them surrounded the tent, crouching low or taking cover behind the
nearby boxes to avoid being silhouetted against the sky.
After about five minutes, however, the defenders’ ammunition was
becoming exhausted. The enemy were now getting bolder. Although
they still hesitated to charge they were coming closer, hacking at the
guy ropes and beating at the tent with clubs to knock it down. This was
an old Arab trick, the idea being to entangle their victims in the canvas
so that they could be speared in safety. Burton therefore gave the order
to break out and run for it. Speke, who was suffering from ophthalmia
which impaired his night vision, was in the lead, but on emerging from
the tent he hesitated for a moment, being unable to distinguish any
targets. He was hit on the leg by a stone thrown by an unseen Somali
and almost knocked down, so he ran to the fly of the tent and ducked
down low, so that he could see the silhouettes of the enemy who were
peering over the boxes. He fired at three of them and saw them
disappear, though he admits that he did not know whether he had hit
them or not. (This eminently sensible manoeuvre of Speke's had
unhappy consequences later on, because Burton seems to have
thought that he was retreating. He shouted to him, “Don't step back, or
they will think we are retiring”. This rebuke was fairly mild by the
standards of the irascible Burton, who probably soon forgot all about
it. In fact in “First Footsteps in East Africa” he pays tribute to the
steadiness of both of his comanions. But Speke seems to have brooded
over the incident. Long afterwards, when delirious with fever, he
brought it up again and accused Burton of calling him a coward. The
two men never forgave each other.)
As the three moved forward again, Speke now found himself a few
yards behind the others. A huge warrior suddenly appeared in front of
him. Speke put his revolver against the man's chest and pulled the
trigger, but (any skirmish wargamer will know the feeling) the
weapon chose this moment to jam. He raised the butt to hit his
opponent over the head, but the Somali was quicker. He swung his
club and struck Speke across the chest. The blow winded the explorer,
and the Somali snatched the revolver out of his hand. Several other
warriors jumped on Speke, and he was quickly tied up and dragged
off, a prisoner.
Meanwhile Burton, Herne and the Balyuz were making their escape.
Burton cut his way through with his sabre, with the Balyuz running
behind him, trying to push him forward to safety. This well-
intentioned action nearly had disastrous results. Burton, feeling
someone shoving him from behind, mistook him for an enemy, and
turned round with the intention of cutting him down. The Balyuz cried
out, and Burton hesitated. As he did so he took his eye off the ball for a
moment, and a Somali stepped forward and either stabbed him with a
spear or threw it at him from very close range. The weapon went
through Burton's cheek and came out on the other side of his face,
smashing several of his teeth in the process. Such a wound would have
put most people out of action, but not Burton. Leaning on the Balyuz,
with the spear still sticking right through his head, he staggered on. A
few of the servants and “friendly” Somalis were seen hanging around
outside the camp, but they were unwilling to approach the enemy.
“The only man that showed presence of mind, one Golab of the Yusuf
tribe” was sent to find a boat, and Burton and the Balyuz left their
pursuers behind in the darkness.
Herne was not far behind, guarding the rear. Speke saw him emptying
his revolver into a crowd of Somalis, and noted that “from the
resolution with which he fired at them, he must have done some
damage”. When his ammunition was finished he defended himself
with the butt of the pistol, and received several blows from the Somali
war-clubs in return. Herne, like his companions, seems to have been a
remarkably tough customer. Burton comments that “with the
exception of sundry stiff blows with the war-club, Herne had the
fortune to escape unhurt.” Obviously a little thing like being whacked
over the head with a club hardly counted as much more than an
inconvenience (“Good God, man! Had to put up with worse than that
every night in the dorm at public school. Made me what I am!”) Not
surprisingly, the Somalis seemed reluctant to close
with him. He passed through a group of about a dozen,
who kept shouting “Kill the Franks!”, but this
advisory role was as far as they were prepared to go.
They made no further attempt to stop him as he
escaped in the direction of the sea.
Speke’s Amazing Adventure.
In the first light of morning Herne, the Balyuz and a
badly wounded Burton met up on the shore, from
where they made their escape in the native boat. The
enemy had disappeared with their loot. Speke
eventually rejoined his companions after a real “Boy’s
Own” adventure, which is not strictly relevant to the
game but is too good to omit altogether. His hands
were tied in front of him, and throughout the night he
was alternately threatened and forced to watch the
victorious war dances of his captors. Eventually one of
the warriors came up and started stabbing at him with a
spear. One thrust went right through Speke's thigh, at
which point he decided that he had better do
something. He leapt up and struck out with his bound
hands, knocking his assailant off balance, and then ran
towards the shore, dodging the missiles that were
hurled after him. At last he reached the town of
Berbera and safety, “having walked and run at least
three miles,” as Burton explains, “after receiving
eleven wounds, two of which had pierced his thighs. A
touching lesson how difficult it is to kill a man in
sound health!”
The Characters.
Because of the small numbers involved it would
probably be best to play this as a conventional
skirmish game, involving, on the explorers’ side at
least, a handful of named characters. These will be:
Lieutenant R. F. Burton (on leave from 18th Native
Infantry (Bombay), Indian Army): Leader of the party.
Equipped with a sabre, with which he is an
acknowledged expert. (He is also a crack shot with a
pistol, if he can get hold of one.)
Lieutenant J. H. Speke (Bengal Light Infantry): One
Dean and Adams percussion cap revolver. Speke is
tall, strong, and a fast runner. He possesses an
incredibly tough constitution. He is also a noted big-
game hunter, but on this occasion his shooting is
average at best, because of his night blindness.
Lieutenant G. E. Herne (Bombay Fusiliers): One
Colt percussion cap revolver. Another hard case.
Speke also pays tribute to his coolness and courage.
The effect of his shooting is not known, but he is a
professional soldier, so treat him as an above average
Lieutenant W. Stroyan, I.N.: Percussion cap
revolver, six shot, type unknown. Less is known about
him than the others, but Burton refers to his “manly
courage, physi cal endurance, and st eady
perseverance”, so we can safely give him the same
characteristics as Herne.
Mahmud, “The Balyuz” (Mijjarthayn tribe):
Flintlock musket and sabre. Not recorded as having
actually done any fighting, but he is loyal and brave,
and for game purposes he should be regarded as of
above average competence.
Golab (Yusuf tribe): Would have carried typical
Somali weaponry. Did not run as far as his
companions, but did not actually stand and fight
either. Make him take a pretty stiff morale test to do
anything more positive than carry messages.
A handful of askaris armed with flintlock and sabre,
some of whom just might hang around long enough to
get a shot off before they leg it. Make them test morale
before they get involved; any shooting should be
unaimed snap shots. The rest of the askaris and
friendly Somalis might as well be ignored for all the
good they were.
Lots of hostile Somalis (Eesa Musa, Habr Gerhaji and
Mikahil tribes, if you must know): All armed with
spear, shield, club and dagger. Most were pretty
pathetic. They were reluctant to close with the enemy,
their blows were feeble when they did, and their aim
with missiles was nothing to be proud of either. Much
of this ineptitude can be attributed to their fear of the
enemy's firearms, but their whole style of warfare
was not designed to do decisive damage. Burton
comments that, in marked contrast to the situation
among the Arabs, you hardly ever saw a Somali with
battle scars. Whatever rules you use, Somali morale
will have to be handicapped fairly severely to give the
defenders a chance. The warrior who disarmed Speke
did fairly well, though - well enough perhaps to
justify nominating a handful of men as above-average
Depending on the level of personal detail which you
require from a skirmish game, there are plenty of
suitable nineteenth-century rule sets. You could try
the rules in my “In Darkest Africa” campaign article
(see WI 132), in which case you will need some firing
statistics for revolvers - I suggest treating them the
same as Pygmy Archers, but with an automatic kill if
they hit - and thrown spears, daggers etc. - say a basic
4 to hit at up to 4", treat for effect as unpoisoned
arrows. Give the explorers a +3 in close combat, and
treat all Somalis as ordinary Spearmen. Limit
visibility to about 6" because of the darkness. All the
white men and the Balyuz will count as officers, but
the Somalis should only have two or three leaders in
total, so that most of them will be hanging around
realistically most of the time for lack of points to
encourage them.
Also designed specifically for this period is “With
Sword and Bayonet” by Tom Penn, published by
Tabletop Games. This is more of a conventional
skirmish set, and covers weaponry, wounds,
individual morale etc. in considerable detail. But it
also includes provision for organising non-character
figures into groups of ten or so, which are then treated
for most purposes as a single figure. This makes the
system especially suitable for games like this one,
where there is an enormous disparity in numbers and
effectiveness between the two sides. You could also
try Western Gunfight rules like Foundry’s “Rules
With No Name”. It would be quite fun giving
characteristics to the various participants based on
what we know about their actions in the fight. For
Lt. R. F. Burton - Legend; Bossman, Strong, True
Grit, Crack Shot, Knifeman.
Lt. J. H. Speke - Shootist; Strong, Swift, Hard as
Nails (eleven wounds and still lived to tell the tale.
How hard can you get?), Lucky.
As for figures, Foundry produce a Burton and a Speke
in their Darkest Africa range, although they are not
designed specifically for this battle, and so are not
carrying the right weapons - Burton has a revolver,
and Speke a double-barrelled hunting rifle. Of course
figures in nineteenth-century dress carrying
revolvers can be found in any Wild West range.
Foundry also have a wide selection of other European adventurers,
askaris and African spearmen, not to mention baggage.
They do not produce any specific Somali figures as yet, although
given the enthusiasm with which Mark Copplestone is expanding the
range I would not be surprised to see some in the future. Both Burton
and Speke give us descriptions of their appearance. Somali warriors
usually wore the “tobe”, which was basically a white sheet draped
over one shoulder and secured round the waist by a sash. Shields were
made of leather. They were small, round, convex and usually white.
There were, according to Burton, “a hundred ways of dressing the
head” - including turbans for chiefs or elders, lions’ manes worn as
wigs, ringlets, shaved heads, and feathers worn in the hair. Some
nomads bleached their hair, then either left it in the resulting light
straw colour or dyed it red with henna.
The nearest thing I can think of in existing figure ranges is probably
Punic Wars period Numidians. Otherwise, it is not going to matter too
much if you use ordinary African spearmen in loincloths. Neither will
you really need 350 of them. Most of the warriors did not do a lot in the
actual fight, but were occupied in plundering the baggage, stealing
camels, and shouting helpful advice to their friends. In any case, in the
darkness it must have been pretty well impossible for the leaders to see
what everybody was doing. Just use all the spearmen you have got,
converted by Steve Dean
and bring on the casualties at the back
as reinforcements if necessary.
This scenario, including the quotations
from Burton and Speke respectively, is
derived from the following books:
R. F. Burton: “First Footsteps in East Africa; or,
An Exploration of Harar”, London, 1856.
J. H. Speke: “What Led to the Discovery of the
Source of the Nile”, Edinburgh, 1864.
(This fight is also featured in the 1989 film, “The Mountains of the
Moon”, starring Patrick Bergin as Burton and Iain Glen as Speke. The
film is good for atmosphere, but here as elsewhere it takes liberties
with the historical events. In this episode Speke is portrayed as more
irresolute than he actually was. His escape from Somali captivity is
actually made to seem less remarkable in the film; he manages to get
hold of a spear instead of laying out his captor with his bare hands, and
his friends are waiting outside the enemy camp to rescue him - another
instance of fiction being unable to handle the actual strangeness of
truth. )
We do not know exactly when or where this next battle took place, and
what we know of it is derived from a single eyewitness account,
acquired at second hand from one of the few survivors on the losing
side. It was fought in the middle of the vast Congo rainforest, between
a party of Arab ivory-traders and a previously unknown tribe of
Pygmies. Darkest Africa does not come much darker than this. But the
fascination of this action is that it is one of the few which we know
anything at all about in which Europeans were not involved. It also
shows the Pygmies - who are invariably described in
modern accounts as shy, secretive and peaceful people
- in a rather different light. As a wargame, it
combines the appeal of the exotic with some
interesting tactical problems for both sides.
The Unknown River.
Our source is the account of an Arab named Bwana
Abed ibn Jumah, who was interviewed in 1876 by
H. M. Stanley, at Tippu Tib's headquarters at Nyangwe on the River
Lualaba. Stanley was enquiring about the course of the river
downstream, and was treated to a hair-raising description of the perils
of the jungle to the north, in which three large Arab expeditions had
recently been swallowed up, with a total loss of nearly 500 men. There
were cannibal tribes; gigantic snakes; swarms of ants; gorillas, which
had the appealing habit of grabbing people and biting off their fingers;
and - most terrifying of all - the semi-mythical warriors of the
mysterious “dwarf country”.
In middle of the nineteenth century, Arabs from Zanzibar had
travelled east from Lake Tanganyika and discovered the upper
reaches of the Lualaba, which flows northwards through the savannah
country of what is now the south-eastern quarter of the Democratic
Republic of Congo. (You know the one I mean. Used to be called
Zaire. What it will be called by the time you read this is anybody's
guess.) Men like the slave-trader Tippu Tib, in alliance with the
Pygmies attack. Painting by Steve Dean and Kevin Dallimore
warlike Manyema tribe, had laid the foundations of an
Arab state in the region. But not far north of Nyangwe,
the Lualaba disappears into the immense jungles of the
Congo Basin, which in the 1870s were still unknown
territory even to the Arabs. At the time of Stanley's
arrival, no one knew where the river went after that.
Livingstone had thought that it eventually became the
Upper Nile, though Stanley was soon to prove that it
was actually the source of the Congo. Abed ibn Jumah
simply stated in response to Stanley's questions that “it
flows north, and north, and north, and there is no end to
But Abed did pass on a few more details. He went on to
tell how, a few years earlier, an Arab adventurer
named Mtagamoyo had decided to explore the river in
the hope of discovering a new source of ivory. This
Mtagamoyo was a famous freebooter and slaver,
acknowledged as the best fighter and expedition
leader among the Arabs of Central Africa. He was
admired by many for his fearlessness, and hated by as
many others for his brutality. Even Tippu Tib - himself
no softy - was appalled by his disregard for African
lives. But the younger Arabs especially would have
followed him anywhere. “If any man could guide us to
new ivory fields” explained Abed, “it was
So several hundred men had set out with him from
Nyangwe into the unknown. There were Zanzibari
Arabs, their African auxiliaries from the east coast
known as the “wangwana”, or “freemen”, and a
number of slaves, who served as porters. They
marched through the forest east of the Lualaba,
fighting battles with the cannibals of Usongora Meno
“fearful fellows and desperate” - and losing many men
along the way. It must have been a journey as heroic
and eventful as any of Stanley's, but Abed glosses over
it, for much worse was to come. After several months’
travelling, the adventurers crossed over to the west
bank of the Lualaba and struck across country to the
Lumami River, where they found a welcome at the
village of a chief called Kima-Kima.
Even today the Lumami (or Lomami) flows through a
vast empty space on the map, still untouched by roads
and covered with virgin forest. To Mtagamoyo's men,
it must have seemed like the far side of the moon. But
here they heard tales about the “land of the little men”,
even deeper in the jungle, “where ivory was so
abundant that we might get a tusk for a single cowrie”.
“When we Arabs hear of ivory being abundant”, Abed
confessed, “there is no holding us back”. So they
crossed the Lumami and came to the land of another
tribe, among whom were some Pygmies (or “dwarfs”,
in nineteenth century terminology) - the first the Arabs
had ever seen. They struck them as “the queerest-
looking creatures alive,” Abed recalled, “just a yard
high, with long beards and large heads... They seemed
to be plucky little devils, though we laughed to see
The Arabs were just as much of a surprise to the
Pygmies, but when the latter learned that the strangers
would give beads, copper wire and cowrie shells in
exchange for the ivory which they had stockpiled, they
agreed to guide them to the outskirts of their country,
six days' journey away. From Abed's account it
appears that the Pygmies were much better organised
than we might expect from the scattered bands which
still roam the forest today. At that time, before the
encroachments of their bigger neighbours, they
possessed a large territory, inhabited by thousands of
warriors. They were ruled by a king, who resided in a
village consisting of a single long street with houses
on either side.
The Arabs, whose strength was now reduced to “290
guns”, were lodged in the village, well fed, and
provided with as much ivory as they could carry.
After ten days, Mtagamoyo prepared to return to
Nyangwe. But the Pygmy king refused to let them
leave. He insisted that they buy all the ivory which
could be found in his kingdom, even though they had
no way of carrying it home. Mtagamoyo laughed at
the king. It seems that the Arabs just could not take
the little men seriously, but they were soon to realise
their mistake. While Mtagamoyo was conferring with
his officers about what to do next, a group of
Wangwana burst in with a woman who had been
wounded by an arrow. “They are coming in immense
numbers”, they warned their leaders. “It's a war,
prepare yourselves!”
The Battle.
The Arabs rushed for their guns, but arrows were
already falling among them “in clouds”. Mtagamoyo
cut several of the attackers to pieces with a two-
handed sword, fighting on in a frenzy despite the
arrows sticking through his shirt. But many Arabs
also fell in the first desperate minutes. Hordes of
Pygmies were shooting at them from the tall grass
around the village and down from the tops of trees, so
that they were in danger of being overwhelmed.
Mtagamoyo ordered his men to build a barricade at
each end of the village street, using felled banana
trees and doors ripped from the native huts. Fighting
from behind this improvised cover, and firing
deliberately to conserve their ammunition, they
eventually drove the enemy off.
But the Pygmies were undeterred, and settled down
for a siege. Fresh parties arrived to keep up the hail of
arrows, while the Arabs divided themselves into two
groups, one of which slept while the other manned the
barricades. Over the next 36 hours, flurries of
missiles alternated with occasional attempts by the
Pygmies to rush the defences. On the third day the
Arabs began to suffer from lack of water, for the only
source was outside the village. Mtagamoyo organised
a party of 50 men with water pots, protected by
another 50 armed with muskets. He placed himself at
their head, carrying a shield to keep off the arrows.
They broke out and dashed for the water, but many of
the Pygmies in front of them were unsure about what
they were doing, and refused to run until it was too
late. The Arabs filled their water pots, then ran back to
the village with several prisoners. These, it seems,
they had simply picked up and carried off, with
Mtagamoyo himself grabbing one in each arm - not
the most dignified way to be taken prisoner, but one of
the unavoidable perils of being a Pygmy.
Then the Arabs had what at first appeared to be a
stroke of luck, for they discovered that one of their
captives was the king himself. Mtagamoyo ordered
the others to be decapitated and their heads thrown
outside the village, but he kept the king alive as a
bargaining counter. Sure enough, a delegation arrived
offering peace in return for the release of their ruler.
But as soon as he was returned to them, the attacks
resumed. For the rest of the third day and the
following night the fight continued, until the Arabs
realised that their supply of powder was running out.
They were left with no option but to try and escape as
best they could.
Drawing their “broad long swords, bright as glass”, as
Abed tells it, they charged out of the village once
again, and this time they put the enemy to flight. Abed and his
comrades “followed them like wolves for a couple of hours. Ah, we
killed many, very many, for they could not run as fast as we could.”
The Arabs then rushed back to the village, picked up as much of the
stockpiled ivory as they could manage, and began the long trek back
through the forest. That night the Pygmies closed in again, shooting
out of the darkness. The Arabs returned fire for as long as they could,
but by then, said Abed, “Our powder was fast going. At last we ran
away, throwing down everything except our guns and swords.” Many
died of hunger, thirst and sheer exhaustion during the terrible
homeward journey, while others were overtaken and killed by the
Pygmies. No doubt the cannibals upstream also tucked in when they
got the chance. Abed concluded: “out of that great number of people
that left Nyangwe, Arabs, Wangwana and our slaves, only 30 returned
alive, and I am one of them.” Another survivor, inevitably, was the
formidable Mtagamoyo.
The Game.
This battle is obviously ideal for the “big skirmish” approach, with a
hundred or so figures on either side. The tabletop rules for my “In
Darkest Africa” campaign system were designed for a quick and
simple game of this type, sacrificing detail for speed and ease of play.
They do, however, cater specifically for Pygmies - which is a claim
that I don’t think many other rule sets can make. For both sides, use
one officer or leader for about every ten men. You might consider
counting the Arabs as Baluchis for hand-to-hand combat, and giving
the charismatic Mtagamoyo the score of two dice for encouraging his
men instead of one.
Alternatively, the adventures of a small group of Arabs trying to
escape through the jungle would be ideal for a smaller scale, more
detailed game using conventional skirmish rules. Richard Brooks’
back-of-a-postcard set “Drums Along the Watusi” (in Miniature
Wargames No. 9 - anybody remember that far back?) is also a nice
simple system for small actions in the jungle. Whatever rules you
decide to use, the following remarks on the combatants may help
when adapting them to this scenario.
The Forces.
As we have seen, there were a total of 290 armed Arabs and wangwana
when they reached Kima Kima’s village. As there was no fighting
there, we can assume that the same number survived to reach the
"dwarf country". For a big skirmish game, a sensible figure ratio to use
would be about three or four to one, so that around 70 figures will be
needed. It seems that most if not all of the Arabs were armed with long,
straight swords as well as flintlock muskets. We have Stanley’s
description of Mtagamoyo, if anyone wants to paint up a personality
figure. He must have been around forty at the time of the battle, “of
middle stature and swarthy complexion, with a broad face, black beard
just greying, and thin-lipped. He spoke but little, and that little
courteously. He did not appear very formidable, but he might be
deadly nevertheless. The Arabs of Nyangwe regard him as their best
The wangwana would also have had flintlocks, but probably machetes
or knives rather than the swords. Unfortunately we are not told what
the numbers of the different contingents were, but the Arabs would
probably be in a minority. They tended to have a low opinion of the
courage of the wangwana compared to themselves, but there is no
mention in this account of any difference between them. The slaves
were probably not armed, as at one point Abed appears to contrast
them with the armed men. For Arab figures in 25mm, I suggest using
the Zanzibaris and Baluchis from Foundry's range. Their askaris with
muskets are also ideal for the wangwana.
Stanley’s map of the region in “Through the Dark Continent” includes
the following note: “Dwarfs are variously called Watwa, Wakwanga,
Wakuma and Wakumu. They are said to be vicious and most
murderous. Their range is believed to be extensive”. Pygmies seem to
have varied in size, with some tribes being smaller than others, but
they are not quite as small as Abed claimed. Between four and four and
a half feet is about the average height. Their skin is more reddish than
that of their larger neighbours, and they are more likely to have beards.
This group apparently went completely naked, and had no use for the
cloth which the Arabs brought to trade, although pictures from other
sources show Pygmies wearing nappy-style Congo loincloths and
caps made from the skins of spotted cats, with a tail hanging down
Davy Crockett-style.
Pygmies are generally described as archers, although spears were also
used for hunting. Their bows were short, and the arrows light and
made of reed. This meant that they only had a short range, but in the
thick vegetation amongst which the Pygmies lived this did not matter.
Arrows could be tipped with a very effective poison; Abed says that
“many of our people fell dead instantly from the poison”, although in
other cases it took somewhat longer to take effect. Because of their
small stature the Pygmies would obviously not be much use in a hand-
to-hand fight, although it is surprising that Abed describes the Arabs
as being faster runners, because the agility of the Pygmies is often
commented on. Perhaps they would be at more of an advantage in
dense forest than in the open. Certainly they could make extremely
effective use of cover, especially tall grass. According to Abed, “They
were such small things, we could not see them very well; had they
been tall men like us, we might have picked off hundreds of them.”
How many Pygmies there were at this battle is difficult to say: Abed
talks only of “thousands”, and “immense numbers”. As they fought
mainly from cover and would not all have appeared in the open at the
same time it must have been impossible to judge their strength
accurately, and “thousands” is probably an exaggeration. (Pygmy
bands today are never anything like as big as that.) Perhaps this is
another occasion for using as many figures as you can get hold of, and
bringing the casualties on again as reinforcements. Pygmy figures -
real little characters, if a bit overdressed for this scenario - should be
available by now in Foundry’s range.
The only source for this battle, from which all the above quotations
are taken, is in Stanley's account of his Congo expedition:
H. M. Stanley, “Through The Dark Continent”, London, 1890.

Pygmy Archers. Painting by Kevin Dallimore
Pygmy Chief. Painting by Kevin Dallimore

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